By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006
PHILADELPHIA -- When George Washington University signed recruit Omar Williams in 2001, Coach Karl Hobbs called him one of the top 20 high school basketball players in the country. In the four years he has played for the Colonials, Williams has lived up to that potential, starting almost 100 games and helping a mediocre program become the sixth-ranked team in the country.
But Williams was accepted at George Washington after failing to graduate in five years from his original high school and receiving no grades at three prep schools in the next two years, including one that burned down after he was there five days. The National Collegiate Athletic Association certified his transcript without any verification, making him academically qualified for a basketball scholarship.
George Washington said it followed NCAA rules when it relied on that certification in deciding to admit Williams, and said he is on track to graduate in May. But Williams's history illustrates the flaws in the NCAA system set up to preserve the academic integrity of college sports and calls into question George Washington's methods for building a basketball program bound for the NCAA tournament.
"If you knew the circumstances way back, you would probably make a different decision," said Robert Chernak, George Washington's senior vice president of student and support services, who oversees the school's admissions department. "Clearly, you would have to at least researched further the credibility of the [prep] school."
The NCAA, the governing body of intercollegiate sports, would not comment on Williams's record. When reached on his cell phone Friday and asked about his academic record, the 24-year-old Williams said, "I don't mind talking to you," but he said school officials had told him not to speak to a Post reporter.
The NCAA's eligibility certification process is handled by a private company it created, Clearinghouse, which approves high school courses and transcripts of recruits. Under Clearinghouse policy, there was no requirement to check if any of the schools on Williams's transcript existed, if the grades were real or if he attended the schools, said Kevin Lennon, an NCAA official. The SAT scores of applicants, critical for certification, are allowed to be submitted in handwriting, instead of on an Educational Testing Service document. Those scores are not compared to official results, Lennon said.
Lennon is heading a committee reviewing Clearinghouse policies after allegations of academic fraud by independent prep schools like the ones Williams attended. The NCAA declared a blanket amnesty on Feb. 15 for prep school athletes with invalid transcripts, stating that they would not lose their college eligibility.
Administrators at other local universities, including American University and Maryland, disagreed with George Washington's emphasis on Clearinghouse approval in the admission decision. They said student-athletes at their schools go through the same admissions procedures as all applicants.
"The certification by our Clearinghouse should be one of just many factors considered by the institution when they decide to admit student athletes," Lennon said. "It's an important factor, I will give you that. But I think it's even more important that the admissions process on the campus make its own evaluation."
Hobbs recruited Williams after he went 12-16 in his first season at George Washington. He signed Williams even though other coaches said they would not consider pursuing him because of his academic history. Said one coach in the Philadelphia area who had seen Williams's transcript, "We didn't think he had a chance of getting into our school."A Difficult Start
Williams enrolled at Ben Franklin High in Philadelphia in 1995 but faced immediate academic problems. He told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2001 that he was held back in the ninth grade. "I just hung out with the wrong kids and didn't do much work," he told the newspaper.
"He wasn't a bad kid, he was just lazy," said Ken Hamilton, Franklin's coach at the time. "I knew he had the ability [academically]. His teachers liked him."
But Hamilton said lapses in attendance and missed practices prevented Williams, then 6 feet 6 and only 155 pounds, from being more than a reserve on Franklin teams that won Philadelphia Public League boys' championships.
Hamilton said he refused to give Williams a 1999-2000 championship ring because he was the first player in his 28 years of coaching who didn't graduate with his class.
Without a diploma and with his public school eligibility expired, Williams called Philadelphia Christian Academy, which Tonya and Jesse Edwards, a Pentecostal minister from Jackson, Tenn., opened in 1980 to educate their children and then expanded.
Tonya Edwards said she did not hear from Williams again until he and 15 other players showed up at PCA in the fall of 2000 with Darryl Schofield.
In 1999, Jesse Edwards hired Schofield as athletic director and basketball coach. Schofield, a former Philadelphia sanitation worker, was an AAU coach in the city. It isn't clear how he met Williams, but Schofield would become a key figure in Williams's life.
All of the players Schofield brought to PCA, including some from Belgium and France, arrived lacking the necessary grade-point average and standardized test scores to become academically eligible to play basketball under the NCAA's rules.
Schofield quickly built a strong team that finished 27-6, but Jesse Edwards said he was unhappy with how the players performed academically.
"As far as basketball, I'd say Schofield is top-notch," Edwards said. "He got the best players in the city. The problem was how he did it. The players didn't go to school. They didn't show up. When they did show up, they were late or disruptive in class. Most of them couldn't read on a third-grade level. Academics were the least important part of his program."
Tonya Edwards said Schofield registered PCA with the Clearinghouse, a fairly simple process: Schools submit a list of the classes they offer. The Clearinghouse then approves or disallows courses based on the school's responses to its questions about the curriculum, Lennon said. Athletes pay a $50 fee to register at the Clearinghouse. Their grades are submitted by their high schools and compared to the list of approved classes on file. If the two match and the grades are adequate, a transcript is certified.
Tonya Edwards said she was surprised to learn that the Clearinghouse approved PCA to teach 35 classes, including Greek I and Greek II, which the school has never offered.
"We didn't have people qualified to teach some of those subjects," she said.
Schofield did not return phone messages this week to discuss courses that school officials said he registered at Clearinghouse.
As for Williams, Schofield said in an interview three weeks ago that he entered PCA needing to pass 12 of the 16 core courses required by the NCAA and also needed a qualifying SAT score. But Tonya Edwards said Williams rarely attended class and stopped coming to school after about a month. She said Williams earned no grades or credits.
"He was there for a short period of time, but didn't graduate with us," said Denyse Alibocas, former director of PCA's high school and one of its teachers. "He really wasn't that enthused about it. He wasn't so keen on classrooms to begin with. He was just really never there."
Schofield, however, said his primary motivation for working with young players is to help them academically. In the interview with The Post three weeks ago, Schofield said Williams passed seven core courses during the 2000-01 school year while he was enrolled at PCA.
After one season, Jesse Edwards decided to sever ties with Schofield. The school still accepts a few postgraduate students but hasn't fielded a basketball team in two years, Edwards said.
Williams had grown three inches since leaving Franklin and was a 6-9, 170-pound point guard. George Washington was in pursuit.
But Williams needed to find a new school to become eligible to play under NCAA rules. The previous May, Schofield met with Rev. Arlene Mills of Celestial Tabernacle Church in Northeast Philadelphia. Mills had been operating Celestial Christian Academy, a private school offering kindergarten through eighth grade. Schofield proposed creating a prep school that would cater to potential college basketball players.
Mills agreed and said she told Schofield the church would need until January 2002 to be ready to open. Mills said she didn't hear from Schofield again that summer. In early September 2001, however, Mills was called to the reception area at the church and found the players towering over the grade-schoolers.
"I called them trees because that's how they looked to me," said Mills, 71, who lives in a rowhouse not far from the church.
After consulting with her church's board of directors, she agreed to open the prep school the following week, even though the church had done little preparation.
Williams was among at least 16 players brought to the school by Schofield, according to the church's records. By late November, six more players had registered. Most were from Philadelphia, but Keith Butler was an imposing center from North Cambridge Catholic High School in Cambridge, Mass. Guard Malik McCullough attended the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in New York. He had graduated from high school, but needed to earn a qualifying score on the SAT.
Schofield said Williams still needed to pass five core courses when he enrolled at Celestial.
Mills said that because of the haphazard opening, the schools had time to hire a single teacher: a Temple student from Africa. Mills said Schofield, as he did at PCA, filed the Clearinghouse paperwork. Mills quickly identified the curriculum and materials for the lone teacher.
As far the Clearinghouse was concerned, Celestial had a full staff of teachers. The Clearinghouse approved 35 courses at Celestial, including biology, chemistry, two classes of French and two classes of Greek, the Web site stated on Wednesday.
"What? We didn't have anybody to teach all of that stuff," Mills said, when told of the list. "I don't believe this. We were trying to teach them elementary things, like reading, writing and math. They were having problems reading and writing; they couldn't speak Greek."
After the first couple of weeks of school, Mills said, she rarely saw Schofield or the students. She said Schofield only came by to meet college recruiters and would give them a tour of the school and church.
McCullough, now a senior guard at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., said Mills's concern was justified.
"They were just some guys running a scam," McCullough said. "We were supposed to be going to school at the church. Schofield said we didn't have to go, so we never went to school."
Tuition bills were also overdue from some of the players. Mills said the church learned Schofield had opened a separate post office box in the prep school's name and was handling the mail. Mills said she notified the postmaster and had the box closed in early December 2001. She said the players still weren't attending classes and their academic transcripts from high school were missing. Mills said she began the process of closing the school.
On Dec. 11, 2001, George Washington announced that Williams had signed with the Colonials.
On Dec. 24, Mills met with Schofield and informed him she was closing the school.
In a Jan. 17, 2002, letter to the church's directors, Mills wrote that a preliminary investigation of the prep school found that "persons unknowingly and without authorization or authentication have engaged in changing student's grades, removed transcripts from school premises, misled the U.S. Postal Service without our knowledge or approval and rerouted or diverted mail, including funds earmarked for the Celestial Preparatory School."
Since the players rarely attended classes and didn't come to school at all after mid-October, Mills said none of them were given grades for fall semester 2001.
Reginald Holder, a friend of Schofield's, was hired by Mills as the church's legal counsel before its fallout with the coach. Holder, citing the dispute over tuition payments, said the players' relationship with Celestial Tabernacle Church was never very good.
"The commitment to the kids wasn't there," Holder said. "If their rewards are going to be strictly financially, then they're going to be sorely disappointed."
Again, Williams needed a school. Holder said Williams and the rest of the players were sent home over the Christmas holidays. When they returned in early January, Holder said they were enrolled at Lutheran High School at Tabernacle Lutheran Church in West Philadelphia. The players had been at the school for about five days when the church's fellowship hall caught fire on Jan. 16, 2002.
Left without a building, the school closed.
McCullough and other players left Philadelphia and enrolled elsewhere. But Williams and 18 other students stayed, Holder said.
Holder said he and Schofield opened their own school in mid-February at a rowhouse on West Jefferson Street where some of the players lived. McCullough and Mills said the players lived there without electricity at times. "It was a joke," McCullough said.
Neither Holder nor Schofield has a background in education. Holder was a practicing lawyer until his law license was suspended by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on March 30, 2001.
Schofield told The Post that he had a degree from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a two-year college in Lancaster, Pa. But an official at the school said this week that Schofield had never enrolled there.
Holder said they called the school Lutheran High, even though it had no association with the previous school. Holder said the school had four instructors, including his wife, Valerie Holder, who taught chemistry.
Schools in Philadelphia are required to register with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to ensure they are meeting the 180-day attendance requirement. But no school named Lutheran High at the address of the players' rowhouse was registered with the state for that school year, according to state records.
Holder said the students were given grades for the entire school year because they had been able to complete the necessary course work even though they had not gotten grades the first semester from Celestial and had missed one month in the second semester because of the fire. "We worked Saturdays and later because we lost a few weeks," he said.
Schofield said Williams passed the five core courses he needed.
The next fall, Williams enrolled at George Washington.Warnings Unheeded
A few months earlier, Mills had read in a newspaper article that Butler, one of the former Celestial players, had signed with Temple. She said she wrote a letter of warning to the Clearinghouse. "Please be advised that Mr. Butler received no grades from the Celestial Preparatory School. He registered, but did not attend classes," Mills wrote in a July 16, 2002, letter, a copy of which she provided to The Post.
When she received no response, she also called the Clearinghouse to make sure no other former Celestial players had been given academic credit for the 2001 fall semester. Again, no answer.
"I called them and they wouldn't return my calls," Mills said. "It was like they were ignoring me."
Lennon said he was not allowed to speak about the case.
Lennon said the NCAA is investigating the validity of more than 5,000 prep schools across the country. A final report is due in April. Among the schools being checked is Lutheran Christian Academy, a different school than Lutheran High, where Schofield is the basketball coach and Holder is listed as the principal in the school's September 2003 registration with the state of Pennsylvania. The school was the subject of a Post investigation last month into possible academic fraud. The Post reported Schofield is the school's only employee, that the school has no buildings of its own and is held in two rooms of a community center. A former player told The Post the school had no teachers or textbooks and players rarely attended class. Two weeks later, the New York Times reported similar allegations.
More than a dozen former Lutheran Christian players are now playing collegiate basketball. Among them is Maureece Rice, who was signed by George Washington two years ago. When asked about his relationship with Hobbs, Holder said they have met on several occasions and he has visited George Washington's practices. Holder said he plans to attend Williams's graduation.
George Washington officials declined to say from what high school Williams graduated. The team's media guide and Web site, which list the final high schools of every Colonial player, has Celestial Prep listed for Williams. Sports information director Brad Bower said he could not comment on why Celestial is listed for Williams.
"I have great confidence in Coach Hobbs and the university's admissions policies for student-athletes," George Washington President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said in part of a statement that was issued to the media and later shared with alumni on Friday. "I trust Coach Hobbs."
Because George Washington receives more than 20,000 applications annually, Chernak said it would be impossible for the school to check the legitimacy of each school on a transcript. Chernak said nearly every student-athlete being considered for admission is interviewed by eight university officials outside of athletics to determine their character and communication skills.
"The presumptive assumption we make when we're recruiting athletes is we take the official transcripts, the SAT scores, all of the requirements for core courses and grade-point average and it goes to the NCAA Clearinghouse," Chernak said. "If the Clearinghouse, and in some cases this happens, says, 'No, look, it's not a reputable school or we're not clearing it or we have questions about the transcript,' there have been some people who have been declared that they can't play or can't get a scholarship. But once the NCAA Clearinghouse generally says, 'We've reviewed it, it's fine,' then the presumptive assumption at that point in time is it's fine. There would be no reason to question it."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.